Saturday, July 16, 2016

Playful Learning: Part 3 (Fostering Collaboration Through Social Gaming and Team Building)

When you strive to gamify your classroom, the first thing I would recommend is to think about the games that you or your kids love.  These might be casual mobile games like Words with Friends, Angry Birds, or Candy Crush.  They might be board games like Monopoly, Pictionary, or Candyland.  They might be video games like Minecraft, Supermario, or Halo. What makes these games fun for you or your students?

Consider what makes games so fun for you and your students.

There are a few ways which I think can make student learning more "game-like" and thus more fun.

Here are some elements that I have believe to be the most important to foster playful learning in your classroom.  In this post I am going to discuss social gaming and collaboration:
  • Friendly Competition
  • Social gaming and collaboration
  • Having choice
  • Achievements and Badges
Social gaming
As I mentioned in Part 1, many gamers are motivated by the social aspects of games.  When kids can play with their friends, they are often more engaged and work toward goals for a longer period of time.   

My students love to play "I have...Who has..." games in teams to try to work together to beat the fastest time.  This game requires good communication and teamwork to be completed successfully.

Many children love to play video games like Minecraft where they can create entire worlds together.  Some educators have even found very effective ways to use this  popular game to teach standards. My students love to collaborate with their peers using apps like iMovie, Garageband, or Toontastic to create a movie, or podcast, puppetshow.  In my afterschool Technology Club I challenged my students to work in teams using the Minecraft app to build a pixel art world using patterns that I had printed out. They produced amazing results.

Even games that are competitive can have a social element.  Few would argue that playing the game Words with Friends isn't improved by the social aspect of the game.  It is certainly MUCH more fun to play against a friend or even a random stranger than sitting at home playing making Scrabble words by yourself.  My point?  Even games where students compete can help build social connections.

Building Community with Team Building
Another way to build camaraderie in the classroom is to do team building activities.  In the past, I'd do a few teambuilding activities at the start of the year to help set a positive tone.  Last year, my teaming partner and I decided to do this weekly, and it was tremendous success. Here are a few examples of team building challenges we tried:

  1. The Marshmallow challenge.  If you're interested in doing this I'd watch this video from Ted Talks about the interesting research into this activity.   This site has a nice description of how to do the activity.

  2. Breakout games.  You probably have heard of these escape or breakout games as they are all the rage for adult outings. If you've never done one, I'd highly recommend it as it is a ton of fun!
    One we played in Nashville
    The goal is usually to solve a series of puzzles to get out of a room in a set period of time.  Did you know you can do these in your own classroom, too?  Checkout for ideas on how to do this.  These are SO FUN!

  3. Body through an index card activity.  This activity is great for teaching "grit" or perseverance as there is certain to be a lot of failure with this activity.  Make sure you have lots of index cards!  Here's how to do it.
  4. Cups challenge.  This is great for groups of 4.  Read a description of how to do this fun activity here
  5.  Lego challenge.  This simple activity my teaching partner thought up involved 2 sets of identical Lego pieces.  Students would be partnered with a barrier between them so they can't see what the other built.  One partner would build something and then the other partner would have to build it based on their description.  This was great for practicing communication skills.

  6. Do the impossible. For this activity students sit on each other's lap in a circle.  See this video for how it is done:
  7. STEM related challenges like "Save Fred."
  8. Untie the knot activity.  Take groups of students form a circle and have them randomly grab the hand of someone else inside the circle.  Then have the untie the knot by stepping over or under arms as they untie and forma circle again.
  9. Group puzzles.  I just discovered this fun puzzle on TedTalks.  I had fun trying to figure it out.
  10. Magic Carpet - Students in groups stand on a blanket and are challenged to stand on the others side without stepping off.  Read a more detailed description of the activity here.
Most teachers know that building community in your classroom is more difficult some years than others based on the students you have. What I learned this year was that aside from doing team building activities the first weeks of school (which I always did), students benefited from doing this all throughout the year. It reminded us to communicate positively and to work together for a common goal. It helped strengthen friendships and improved the relationships of students who weren't best friends, too. 

I hope you found a few ideas here that you can use in your classroom.  Have some team building activities or other ways to build community in your classroom? Leave your ideas in the comments.

If you'd like to read more check out my blogposts on
Playful Learning :

    Friday, July 15, 2016

    Playful Learning: Part 2 - (Fostering Friendly Competiton)

    For those looking to "gamify" your classroom, the first thing I would recommend is to think about the games that you or your kids love.  These might be casual mobile games like Words with Friends, Angry Birds, or Candy Crush.  They might be board games like Monopoly, Pictionary, or Candyland.  They might be video games like Minecraft, Supermario, or Halo. First ask yourself, what makes these games fun for you or your students?
    Consider what makes your favorite games so fun.

    There are a few elements which I think can make student learning more "game-like" and thus more fun.

    Here are some elements that I believe to be the most important when playing games in your classroom.  I'll be doing a blog post about each of these:
    • Friendly Competition
    • Social gaming or collaboration
    • Having choice
    • Achievements
    Friendly Competition

    I am a competitive person which is probably one of the reasons I love to play games of all kinds. Competition can energize your classroom, and importantly, it can help keep things fresh for you, too.  We know that competition can bring out the best in humans - that's why so many world records are broken in the Olympics, after all.  But, as teachers we also know it can sometimes bring out the worst in our students, too.  How do you avoid creating a toxic classroom environment where everyone is trying to one up their peers?  Here are some ideas:
    1. Before you play anything, talk to your class about competition.  I always begin the year by reminding my students that ultimately our goal when we play a game is to make our learning as fun as possible.  If we take the competition too seriously, it stops being fun for everyone and if that happens we might as well just review in a more traditional way, like doing a worksheet.  The students generally all agree that this is significantly less fun.
    2. Add an element of randomness or luck.  Dice rolling, wheel spinning, shooting baskets all add an element of luck which can help avoid the same team or player always winning.  For example, a spinning wheel or a dice roll might take a team back to zero points or conversely give a team a giant point boost. 

      Here is a magnetic spinner I use on my dry erase board for when I want to add some randomness to a game.  In this case, the spinner was for "prizes" when a player answered correctly.

      Click to see this spinner on Amazon

      I also use magnetic darts in a similar game. Points are earned or lost by tosses of the dart.

      Click image to see darts for sale on Amazon

      Finally, I just ordered another cool mini game item that I'm excited to try called Crocodile Dentist. Students push down one tooth at a time. If the crocodile bites down, then they are out or lose a turn.

    3. Game time differentiation.  Teachers do this naturally in the classroom while they are teaching all the time.  For example, you ask questions at levels of difficulty that you know that students can be successful.  Similarly, you design classroom activities for students to practice that are appropriately challenging for both your highest and lowest students.  And as the "game master" you can do this, too.  Just be careful that you don't give the impression that you are being unfair lest your uber-competitive students may rebel.
    4.  Level the playing field. Do you have a team or player that is always dominating the dojo and causing the other teams to lose their motivation to play?
      Kramer dominating the dojo
      There are a couple ways you can even out a game.  One way is to strategically divide the teams based on skill level.  Another  way is to give teams special items that can be used during a game that allow them to freeze another team for a round or to slow their progress in some way. 

      As an example of this technique, think of the "skip" and "draw 4's" in the game of Uno.  They are designed to slow down the game and make it more difficult for a player who is about to win.


      Another excellent example of a game that is designed for a level playing field is Mario Cart.  It is designed so that players of all skill levels can play and have fun.  When I would play this game with my preteen son, he was so much better at it than me that I would usually fall far behind - winning seemed impossible, and I probably wouldn't have played long before I became frustrated and lost interest. (Incidentally, the psychology works both ways, too.  My son would have soon become bored from beating me badly over and over.) However, Mariocart is adaptive in that it is designed to give the players furthest behind the best "power-ups."  In my case, it was usually the rocket, which boosts you quickly back up with the leaders.

      Use your creativity to design your classroom game with its own built in power-ups so that even teams in last place can have an opportunity to compete.
    5. Variety is the Spice of Life.  My students and I love Kahoot, but if I played it every day, the kids would get bored of it.  Vary your games so kids stay energized and excited to play. Sometimes you can even take a great game like Kahoot and play it in a new way, and it adds a whole new flavor.  For example, Kahoot can be played in teams, in ghost mode, or even head to head.  (See p. 117 of Michael Matera's book Explore Like a Pirate for a clever way to do this.) 

      , Quizalize, and Quizlet all have fun online games that can allow you to play with your class to provide some variation.  Each has some pros and cons - read this blog for an excellent comparison. Some my other favorite online games/apps are Sumdog, Prodigy, and Math Champ.

    6. A game doesn't have to be "high tech."  In fact, sometimes low tech games are the most exciting for students.  Using game items like spinners, dice, cards, darts, bells, buzzers, basketball hoops, golf balls and putting cups and anything else you can dream up can be used to make your games more kinesthetic.  It's the ultimate in 3D gaming!

      For example, my students love to play a super simple review game called "eraser slide."  All it needs is an eraser and a chalk tray.  After questions are answered, students slide the eraser in the chalk tray for points written on the board.  They love it!

    What are your favorite ways to foster friendly competition in the classroom?  Tell me in the comments.
    For more on this topic, read Playful Learning - Part 3 Fostering Collaboration Through Social Gaming and Team Building



    Thursday, July 14, 2016

    Playful Learning: Part 1 - (The Power of Games for Learning)

    For this set of posts, I am sharing how I plan to gamify my classroom this school year. You may or may not have heard of the term gamification but I can tell you that it is a philosophy that is very popular in education (and business) right now. It might be said, that with the current Pokemon Go game phenomenon, that games in general are the hot topic of the day.

    What is Gamification?

    It is probably necessary to define what both gamification is and is not. Gamification expert Michael Matera who wrote the excellent book Explore Like a Pirate: Gamification and Game Inspired Course Design to Engage, Enrich, and Elevate defines gamification as “applying the most motivational techniques of games to non-game settings, like classrooms.” (Matera, 9)

    Many people think gamification means simply playing educational games in classroom. While playing games to learn can be part of it, gamification is far more than that. In truth, gamification of the classroom makes your entire learning experience part of the game. It unlocks natural student motivation by finding meaning in everyday learning. It can be high tech or low tech. It can encourage both friendly competition and/or collaboration. In essence, gamification uses the successful mechanics and psychology leveraged by games to encourage growth in students as they progress through their learning.

    Why use games to learn?

    The answer to this is simple - games are highly motivating. Games encourage persistence and a growth mindset.  When it comes to games, it is also important to think about how the culture of school and learning is changing in today’s classroom. Traditionally, schools rewarded compliance and treated the teacher as the knower of all that mattered. In today’s world, students have access to any bit of information they could ever want with the click of a button. The primary role of the modern teacher should be to guide student learning. Matera uses the chart below to illustrate this change.

    As educators, we strive to cultivate self-motivated, lifelong learners. And to do this, we need to tap into students’ natural motivations and, as I like to say, put the fun back into the fundamentals. Kids and adults alike love to play games. Many even sheepishly will admit becoming “addicted” to their favorite games (Candy Crush anyone?). Imagine if we could tap into this same natural motivation for the purposes of learning. How powerful would that be?

    Understanding what motivates our students

    Researchers have made the effort to better understand gaming and what makes it so attractive to users. Author Richard Bartle has developed a gaming theory which he classified gamers into four categories: achievers, socializers, explorers and killers. By recognizing each gamer type in your classroom will you better understand what motivates these varied groups to learn.

    Types of Gamers

    “Achievers are the players who strive to gain points, levels, and items that can be measured against other players of the game to show levels of mastery” (Matera, 55). These are often self-driven learners motivated by prestige and status. They like their name posted in the class newsletter when they make accomplishments. They like their name at the top of a leaderboard. They like to master all of the 4th grade objectives like the student below.

    I grew up in the 80’s when some of the first commercial video games like Pac Man and Donkey Kong first came out. Kids my age would play these games obsessively for hours and hours in the mall just so they could enter just their three letter initials at the top of the leaderboard. Similarly, achievers like small, daily competitions and awards like stickers, badges, certificates, leaderboards and other awards as recognition of their accomplishments.

    In my classroom we play lots and lots of mini games like Kahoot, Quizizz, and Classroom Jeopardy to review what we have learned. I even wrote a separate post about some of my favorite high and low tech ways that I review in class.

    When I still taught Language Arts I kept a leaderboard for independent reading that had motivated my top readers in my classroom for years. It seemed like every year a new student would top the previous high score, and then each year I would think to myself, nobody is ever going to break that record. And often, the very next year a student would challenge themselves and do just that. My Achievers each year always wanted to be at the top, to be #1. Some would come back to my classroom years later and ask me, “Am I still on the leaderboard?”

    Another of Bartle’s gamer categories is the “Socializer”. Socializers prefer the “social aspects of gameplay rather than the actual gameplay because they derive most of their enjoyment from the interactions with other players.” (Matera, 55) In the game world this would probably apply to social games like World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and Call of Duty where individuals can work together to either either create new environments or work toward a common goal. In the classroom, the Socializers are not just your chatty-Kathy types, but are often the students who can be used to bond and foster positive interactions in your classroom. These students like to work in teams and feel great satisfaction from accomplishing goals with others. These students gain status and satisfaction from helping others, too.


    “Explorers” are the gamers who like to dig around in a game. They like creating their own worlds, exploring at their own pace, and discovering hidden elements (sometimes called Easter eggs). This category would apply to my son who when hiking with us we have nicknamed him “the wanderer.” He loves to tinker. He loves to ask, “What would happen if I did this?” He is great at finding glitches in games and at finding hidden secrets left there by the game designers. Explorers are less concerned than the achievers with mastery or acknowledgement, but enjoy the discovery process on its own merits.

    Killers (Griefers)
    The unfortunately termed “Killers” are also sometimes called “Griefers” or “Conquerors.” These players enjoy playing the “bad guy” and enjoy the cost-benefit of attacking. For example, whereas the Achievers or Adventurers may enjoy working several hours to earn or find a special sword in a game, the Griefer knows that he or she can earn that sword more easily by beating you in a battle. While the nature of this role sounds negative, these players can be some of the early game adopters. They become highly protective of their group and will add enthusiasm to the game. Griefers are motivated by power and control and love collecting items that can be used to help them in this way.  

    What rewards are motivating for students?

    The final thing I will share about gamification theory that I learned from Matera's book is called the SAPS Model. This was based on author Gabe Zichermann’s book on the topic of leveraging the power of game mechanics, not just in schools but also in business. SAPS is an acronym for categories of motivation. They are: Status, Access, Power, Stuff.

    In education, and perhaps society in general, we have seen a bit of a pendulum swing against status, or acknowledgement of achievement. We have kind of become a culture where “everyone gets a trophy” so to speak. Matera suggests, and I agree with him, that status does have a place in the classroom. It should not be a problem to post or praise exemplary work by students in fear of leaving some students out. For example, in my classroom I often post a picture to the Class Dojo “class story” when students win at one of our review games. The students (and parents) love this acknowledgement.

    Access means allowing students to participate in something special based on certain conditions or accomplishments. Matera suggests that students can be highly motivated to gain experiences they didn’t have before. In the video game world this might be in the form of bonus or secret levels. In school, it might involve students being involved in a special reward day activity for completing certain tasks. He also suggests that it is okay if not every student experiences this aspect of the game as long as it is not tied directly to necessary learning. In our grade level, we do this with weekly Battleball (dodgeball) games. Students who earn 85% or better positive points in Class Dojo earn access to this weekly. In my classroom, we also did this in the form of a Minecraft/technology party at the end of the year. Students who met goals for mastery all of their 4th grade math standards earned this special reward. 

    Power means that students earn agency. This means the ability to make choices or gain control over some aspect of their game. In my classroom, I do this after first having students complete something which will show me they understand the essential concept. After the student has completed this essential task, then they are given the power or agency to choose a follow-up activity which will hopefully further support their learning, but possibly in a more fun format.

    Stuff is probably the most popular of all of the motivators that are used in school. Think pizza parties, candy, trinkets, etc.. Studies have shown that extrinsic rewards such as these are actually the least rewarding of the four motivators and despite this, they are the most commonly used by teachers.

    So how do I plan on gamifying my classroom this year? Read Post #2 -Playful Learning: Fostering Friendly Competition

    For more on the topic of gamification, check out these great books: